Remembering Leopold Stokowski and Creating Widorama!

By Michael Shapiro

I was at the immense Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan to attend the funeral of a lawyer friend of mine taken in his middle sixties, way too early. They said he had suffered a sudden massive heart attack and died instantly, leaving a grieving and weeping wife from their forty years together and two distraught daughters. In attendance were remarkably over 2,000 mourners. I sat in the back of the full crowd of parishioners listening to the intoning of the Right Reverend but indeed left alone thinking about my friend, a very decent and kind man. The thought came to me: could I count on so many attendees to come to my funeral? How did my friend know so many people, and why did so many want to attend the late afternoon service and pay homage to him? Was being kind and decent enough to draw this crowd?

The service ended with the singing of a mournful hymn, and the church started to empty quietly row by row. Then the loud sound of an organ filled the grand sanctuary with cascading chords. I knew the piece was not Baroque. It sounded more Victorian, I guessed, perhaps from around the 1880s, quite familiar, but initially I could not name it. I did know that the music was riveting, could not move from my seat, and listened until its all-encompassing C Major ending.

The church was still emptying when I rose, and I approached the organist as he came down from his loft. Thanking him for the emotional yet stately service, I asked about the recessional work. He said it was by the French composer Charles-Marie Widor, a great organist in the second half of the 1800s and beginning of the twentieth century at Saint-Sulpice in Paris.

I immediately decided to orchestrate it.

My decision came from attending concerts of the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall. Stoki, as he was known to everyone (except one would never dare call him that to his stately visage), often conducted original grand arrangements of organ pieces, usually composed by Johann Sebastian Bach. I loved Stoki’s organ-like and organic orchestrations which elicited huge reverberations. I wondered how his orchestrations generated such titanic swaths of sound but remembered his start as an organist at St. Bartholomew’s here in New York.

As a conductor, I was always amazed how Stoki could generate with only his hands richly golden tones no one else could replicate. He had conducted my teacher Elie Siegmeister’s music in the forties. Elie remembered he had asked Stoki at dinner how he did it. Stokowski’s reply was that he did not know but just waved his hands, and that sound came out.

The Back to Baroque crowd thought Stoki’s approach to Bach old fashioned. I never cared about that. I just thrilled (and still am awed) by his way with fugues and toccatas and organ preludes and even Henry Purcell’s aria from Dido and Aeneas, When I am Laid in the Earth. I said, “Lay me in the earth to Stoki’s orchestration.”

So it came to me in the middle of the night during sleep (when else?) that I had heard the Widor piece years before in Radio City Music Hall played by a virtuoso organist no one appreciated on one of those giant Wurlitzer organs that thrust out of the right side of the hall before the Rockettes and a Rock Hudson-Doris Day movie shattered the grandeur. In the confusion of my midnight reverie, I imagined the Widor work merging with a huge Art Deco movie screen at Rockefeller Center, the wide visual display of Cinerama in the 1950s melding into grand church music.

I did remember that Widor’s Toccata from his Fifth Symphony for organ was perfect in its way. It builds from simple cells alternating between small, then wider patterns and progresses harmonically down unexpected paths to a satisfying resolution. Of course, the organ piece is unto itself sufficient, just like the Bach pieces Stoki featured. But I heard instruments in the sounds and rushed to present my orchestration to my friend John Mauceri (then conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and, not a coincidence, an acolyte of Stokowski) on his sixtieth birthday.

When orchestrating the Widor, I studied of course the registrations the composer chose to set his music and how the patterns might fit instruments playing together and apart. Unlike Stoki who often arranged for an enlarged Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1920s, I decided upon a slightly leaner approach. My inner ear told me however not just to try to reproduce organ sound. Stoki’s example was to make orchestral pieces from Bach and other Baroque masters, not only replicate the musical air of a cathedral (which he also accomplished). I studied Widor’s notes, then thought about which instruments could play what lines. Every instrument has certain and special characteristics of course. A trumpet cannot play in the same way as a cello. Nor can a flute sing in the same register as a tuba. But this was not just a game of registers, low, medium, or high. Rather, how do certain instruments sound together, and when is it right to add some in the mix and drop others? My lessons studying the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakoff’s book on orchestration came in handy. I wanted the paths ahead to be clear, no journeys through dense fog. Things could get heavy and immense but had to resound brightly with clarity. Yes, it was Charles-Marie Widor’s music filtered through my sensibility. My instrumental piece out of his, one plus one hopefully equaling the infinite.

Jerry Junkin later brilliantly conducted the wind ensemble version of the piece with a combined large group of his Dallas Winds and the GDYO Wind Symphony at Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Recently I recorded the work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

-Michael Shapiro is a New York based composer of over a hundred works and a conductor. He has performed internationally.

Composer and conductor